Some bands will do anything for a break. Ours happened on Saturday, June 22, 1968, in the tiny Pennsylvania town of Wind Gap.
Ohio Express concert poster
That chance plays out in a pivotal scene in my new standalone novel, Born Under a Bad Sign, a chronicle of the struggles of a group to play what we now consider the granddaddy of all outdoor music festivals in America—Woodstock.
First, some background. In the mid-1960s, fellow high school student Chip Decker formed a band called the Beaux Esprits (beautiful spirits), with Chip on bass and lead vocals. The other members of the band were co-founder Bob Dittman on rhythm guitar, John McAllister on drums and me on lead guitar. Later we added Joey Raynock on keyboards, succeeded by Gene Gorse on the Hammond B3 organ, and a pair of singers, Ron Oney and Don Chase.
Not wanting to sound like fops, we changed our name to the Seeds of Time (not much of an improvement) and later to Shagg. We took the name from the long-pile carpet that was popular in the late ’60s, not from the British euphemism for sex. Luckily no one who booked us recognized the connotation.
What they did recognize was rebellion, a spirit I harnessed for the two principal characters in Born Under a Bad Sign—photographer Elizabeth Reed and guitarist Hayden Quinn.
My first guitar
Back to Shagg. In the beginning, we played popular music. But bythe end of the decade, a lot of mush clogged the airwaves, songs like “Crimson and Clover,” by Tommy James & the Shondells, “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred & His Playboy Band (another unfortunate name) and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” by the people who would almost singlehandedly ruin a decade of music, the Bee Gees.
While still programming commercial music, we admired a less saccharine sound. Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” sat at the top of the charts, as did “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones and Joplin’s “Piece of my Heart.” We tuned into music that foretold the hard blade of metal to come, embracing the dexterity Deep Purple and the heavy slog of the Vanilla Fudge remake of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”
Like Quinn, we championed the holy trio of havoc—Cream, Hendrix and the Who. We played numbers that were aggressive and loud, complex pieces heavy on improvisation and wailing guitars. The sound was fun, and as musicians it enabled us to stretch. But the kids couldn’t dance to it, and at many of our gigs, people just wanted to dance.
We played any place that would hire us: bars, frat parties, high schools and an underground speakeasy called the Hobbit Hole. Our snobbery limited the audience. So when the opportunity came to play the cavernous building called the Hullabaloo Club as the opening act for the Ohio Express, we jumped. Like the Monkees, the band was a creation of recording executives and promoters, an ersatz group that represented the penultimate in the most mindless sound of the times—songs for the preteen market dubbed bubblegum music.
Our job was to warm up the crowd for a band who’d hit the Top 40 hit with the vapid “Yummy Yummy Yummy” (their version of the song reached No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, on the U.S. Pop and UK Singles charts.) We’d cut our teeth on the Kinks and the Doors and knew we’d blow the imposters off the stage.
That confidence evaporated the minute the Ohio Express ran through its sound check.
The musicians didn’t play bubblegum music. They played the real thing. Their version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” seemed effortless. So did the other numbers. To a bunch of kids struggling to reproduce the music of their heroes, the Express sounded unbelievably good.
Undaunted, we took the stage and, as the crowd burst through the doors, I plugged into the lead guitarist’s Vox, a small amp like the ones the Beatles used, and cranked the volume knob to ten, where it stayed through our finale, the Who’s “I Can See for Miles,” its lines snapping toward a spectacular crash.
As we stumbled off the stage, the Express took its audience to a place we never would—to preteen heaven on a string of hits.
After the concert, in the warm, moist night by the loading dock, the now very real musicians of the Express leaned against their flower-painted VW bus and gave us the unvarnished version of success. Over long necks they complained about how studio musicians had recorded their first album. As the touring band, they were locked into a contract for the next few years. Yes, life on the road stunk and they wanted to play music more complex than “Beg, Borrow and Steal” and the forthcoming “Chewy Chewy.” But the money was good and this was their best shot at fame.
That was a sentiment we understood.
Then they packed and drove into the night. We headed to the Wind Gap Diner.
Shagg lasted another year. College, family and jobs replaced the music. The Ohio Express played out in 1973. Disco replaced bubblegum. The Hullabaloo Club went the way of disco. I think the corrugated steel building later became a blouse mill before those jobs migrated overseas.
All things must pass, but do they have to pass with such regret?
Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.
Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.
With original photography by the author.
Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.